Bush Selects Houston’s Paige As Education Secretary

By Darcia Harris Bowman — December 29, 2000 6 min read
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President-elect Bush tapped Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige as his education secretary Friday, praising the longtime educator’s commitment to improving public schools and his success in turning around the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

“He is someone who is a reformer and someone with a record of results,” Mr. Bush said at a Dec. 29 news conference. “And he’s someone who knows it’s important to set the highest of standards and not accept any excuse for failure. He believes, as I do, that accountability is a true friend of reform.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Paige, a Republican, would be the first African-American to serve as U.S. secretary of education.

Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige speaks at a news conference after being designated as secretary of education by President-elect Bush.
—Kenneth Lambert/AP

Other names that had been discussed as potential nominees included the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, a former Democratic U.S. representative from New York and a leading African-American advocate of private school vouchers, Arizona state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, and Sandy Kress, who served as an education adviser to the Bush presidential campaign. But for those who know the Houston schools chief best, his selection came as no surprise.

“He is very bright, he works extremely hard, and he has demonstrated his ability to manage a complex organization, with nearly 30,000 employees and a $2 billion budget,” said Donald R. McAdams, a Houston school board member. “I’m pleased and I’m disappointed about his nomination. We have a lot of big things going on here, so this is a loss for Houston, but it’s a gain for the nation.”

Others who have worked with Mr. Paige, who became superintendent in 1994, said his policies are very much in line with President-elect Bush’s priorities for public education.

“I think he’ll do an excellent job,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon, who barely spoke with the superintendent during the early and more tumultuous part of his tenure in the 210,000-student district. “I’m quite sure Bush selected him because he knows the Texas accountability system and he’s done well under it.”

Record of Reform

With his seven years at the helm of the Houston Independent School District—nearly three times the average tenure for an urban superintendent—Mr. Paige, 67, lent an enviable level of stability to his once-troubled district.

He also earned a reputation as someone who pushes hard for change, even in the face of staunch opposition, and gets results.

The early days of his tenure included tensions with Houston’s Hispanic community, which had felt excluded from the selection process; divisions over labor-management issues; the 1996 defeat of a school construction bond; and a critical state audit of the district’s financial management.

But under Mr. Paige’s stewardship, the district made a major commitment to ensuring English literacy for all students, with a strong emphasis on phonics-based instruction, linked principals’ job contracts to student performance, opened 20 charter schools, and contracted with private businesses for the management of many nonacademic services.

Between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of students passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in the Houston district rose from 49 percent to 74 percent, at the same time the percentage of low-income students increased from 58 percent to 71 percent. The scores for minority students rose at even greater rates, and Mr. Paige’s initiatives appeared to bolster public support for the school district, which saw a much-needed $678 million school construction bond pass with 73 percent of the vote in 1998.

“If expectations are set high, and if educators and parents work hard together, every child can thrive,” Mr. Paige said at the announcement of his selection in Washington. “The bottom line is this: When we set high standards for our schools and our children, and when we give our schools and our children the support they need and hold them accountable for results, public education can get the job done.”

Responding to a reporter’s question, Mr. Paige declined to identify any one issue as the single biggest problem facing public education in the United States.

“I think there are enough vulnerabilities in the way we do schooling for all of us to take some responsibility for our improving it,” he said. “This is a public system, it is for the public’s benefit, it is a public good, and the public must bring itself together and work hard to achieve it.”

It was unclear from his remarks whether his support for public education would also include advocacy of private school vouchers, which many Republicans and some Democrats have advanced as a means of spurring improvements to the public system. Mr. Bush has proposed giving federally funded vouchers to students in chronically low-performing schools that receive federal aid under the Title I program for disadvantaged students.

In 1996, Mr. Paige ushered in a program that allows students in overcrowded schools to attend private, secular schools at the Houston district’s expense. The policy was immediately branded by critics as an education voucher, but Mr. Paige disputed that interpretation. And even those who have been critical of some of the superintendent’s policies said on Friday that it would be an exaggeration to call him an advocate for vouchers.

“He believes there should be competition, but he also believes the public school district should be strong enough to support that competition,” said Ms. Fallon, whose organization is the Houston affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

While he is not a household name, Mr. Paige has earned high regard in the education world for his successes in Texas, and most observers from across the political spectrum appeared willing to applaud his nomination.

“What we know of him has for the most part been positive,” National Education Association President Bob Chase said. “He’s demonstrated he is committed to quality public education and quality urban education. If there’s any concern, it’s his support for some forms of vouchers ... but he was at the top of the list of people being considered as far as we’re concerned.”

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that supports charter schools and vouchers, applauded Mr. Paige’s record of providing parents with alternatives to regular public schools.

“As one of the nation’s leading education reform groups, we believe that the president-elect is on the right track to make serious changes in federal policy that can support local reform efforts,” Ms. Allen said. “With Rod Paige as his secretary of education, we are hopeful that change can occur, and offer our help in building bridges to key state and local groups for reform.”

Before being tapped as the superintendent of the Houston district, Mr. Paige was elected to the district’s school board in 1989 and became the panel’s president in 1992. He also was the dean of the college of education at Texas Southern University. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University in Mississippi, and a master’s degree and doctorate from Indiana University.

Along with the nomination of Mr. Paige, the president-elect announced three other picks for top posts in his administration on Dec. 29. They included Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican who is in his fourth term as governor of Wisconsin, as secretary of health and human services. The Department of Health and Human Services oversees the federal Head Start program for preschoolers in addition to health and welfare programs.

Mr. Bush has proposed moving Head Start to the Department of Education.

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